Venezuela: the promise of land for the people

Venezuela's opposition particularly loathes the crucial agricultural reforms of President Hugo Chávez, which have begun to return parts of enormous, barely used land-holdings to poor landless peasants and to encourage them to grow their own food and build working communities.

THE latifundio (large estate) spread out across a vast plain like a sea dotted with bushy islands, begins 10 minutes’ drive from San Carlos, which is the capital of Cojedes state. It is only a few kilometres from the little square where General Ezequiel Zamora (1) was killed in January 1860.

Behind countless lines of barbed wire lie the 20,000 hectares of hatos (cattle-farms) belonging to the Boulton family, one of the richest in the country. Then come the 14,000 hectares of Hato El Charcote, property of Flora Companía Anónima. A few dozen young bulls graze this land, lost in its immensity. Beyond that the Branger family’s estate covers a massive 120,000 hectares of El Pao municipality. And beyond that other terratenientes (landowners) estates, domains of 80,000 hectares here, 30,000 hectares there, often with as few as three or four hectares actually being used.

“I’m a landless peasant. I’ve got land, but it’s in the graveyard,” says Jesús Vasquez. For years, any campesino (2) who trespassed on these uncultivated tracts would be caught and imprisoned, or chased out with bullets. The peóns (farm labourers) worked for the miserable daily rate of 3,000 bolos (3). On tiny fractions of an acre, campesinos grow anaemic maize and live off the Holy Spirit. Anyone who cannot afford to buy or rent an allotment rots, confined to the four walls of some horrible slum on the edge of a town.

But those who are very hungry will not wait for ever. On 14 October 2000, Jesús Vásquez, along with 25 men and one woman, occupied part of Hato El Charcote. Its owner turned out to be the British Crown, via Flora Companía Anónima. “The government asked them to present the deeds, but they never did. It’s effectively state land,” explains Vásquez. The enquiry by the National Land Institute (Instituto Nacional de Tierras, INTI), created on 8 January 2002 to enact President Hugo Chávez’s land reforms, confirmed this.

Since then some 800 families, organised into 24 cooperatives, have been granted a part of the property, and have begun to work 7,000 hectares. Fields of maize, papaya, beans, yucca and other vegetables now surround palm-roofed ranchos and a wooden school that the campesinos have built. They also built the bridges needed to access the area, and now drive across them in tractors and trucks bought with government credits.

“Last year we harvested two tonnes of maize. This year we reckon we’ll get up to six tonnes and much more later on,” says a jubilant Vásquez. “People are growing things and have got enough to eat. It’s a magnificent development.”

With the complicity of previous governments, the terratenientes unjustly appropriated millions of hectares, with the result that Venezuela now imports 70% of its food (4). The owners of Polar beer (the largest industry after petrol) import all their hops from the United States. Tinned sweetcorn is imported. This situation benefits big importers and disadvantages the poorer sections of the economy, especially smallholders: it has left hundreds of thousands of campesinos behind.

On 13 November 2001, as part of a package of 49 laws passed by presidential decree, Chávez announced a Land Law to redress Venezuela’s chronic social injustice and to guarantee food supplies by boosting domestic production. Though the law aims to end the latifundio system, it affects only unused land, which it either taxes or expropriates. It forbids any individual to own more than 5,000 hectares and plans to repossess many acres of illegally occupied state land, redistributing all of it to the campesinos, principally, but not exclusively, through the formation of cooperatives.

On 8 December 2001 about 20,000 campesinos (4) piled into buses or on to the backs of open trucks and left their derelict pueblos and tangled allotments behind them. The next day they marched through Caracas to celebrate what had happened. “We moved of our accord, not like before, when you’d have to offer campesinos money or food to get them to move,” insists Claudio Ditulio of Curito Mapurital (Barinas state), where the INTI has just handed 31,700 hectares to 500 families. “We went there with few resources, but with great hopes.”

The great cry for land has finally been heard. It will surely cause many more demonstrations of support for the Bolivarian Revolution (5). “I’ve marched further for this president than I’ve ever run after a woman,” says one of Ditulio’s companions from under his felt hat in the intense heat. Pushing through radical reforms, the Bolivarian Revolution is at last getting down to work.

It is also beginning a battle with the opposition. There were immediate reactions from groups such as the Táchira State Cattleraisers Association (Asociacón de Ganaderos del Estado Táchira, Agosata) and the Táchira section of Venezuela’s powerful employers’ organisation, the Fedecámaras. “The law is interventionist. It imposes state control and ignores the right to property, which is a fundamental human right,” it said. “Taxation of uncultivated lands is unconstitutional. This law is based on communist ideas, as collectivist policies usually are, rather than a political philosophy. What is emerging is a totalitarian attitude” (6).

For José Luis Betancourt, leader of the National Federation of Cattle raisers (Federación Nacional de Ganaderos), the law “will bring many establishments to ruin”. Pedro Carmona, the boss of bosses supported by Carlos Ortega, head of the highly corrupt Venezuelan Workers’ Confederation (Confederación de Trabajadores de Venezuela,) used the same arguments in calling the first general strike on 10 December 2001, a prelude to the 11 April 2002 coup attempt. “The arbitrary nature of these laws demands forceful and unequivocal arguments and acts of resistance,” he said (7).

Yet on that 10 December, defying the strike, Chávez went ahead and officially signed the land reforms into law in front of a sea of flags and red berets in Barinas, saying: “Landowners, prepare your papers; you are going to have to prove your rights to these estates!” Representatives of the landowners tore up the law in a public demonstration broadcast live by the media.

“Our terratenientes aren’t even capitalists. Capitalists make use of their land,” says Ricaurte Leonete, appointed chairman of the INTI at the beginning of August 2003. “In Europe capitalism got rid of this kind of parasitic behaviour a long time ago.” But the opposition accuses the Chávez government of “Castrocommunism”. There is the sound of battle across Venezuela.

In Yaracuy State, it is as loud as thunder. Here campesinos call their neighbours camaradas and recite poetry. The collective struggle against “the thousand-headed terrophagus” (land-eating monster) has gone on for decades. Led by Braulio Alvárez, the charismatic leader of the Ezequiel Zamora National Agrarian Board (Coordinadora Agraria Nacional Ezequiel Zamora), the Urachiche and Camunare Rojo land committees requested and received, on 4 May 2002, 665 hectares of fallow land from the Bolmer and Azleca families. Both are closely tied to the family of the state’s opposition governor, Eduardo Lapi. According to the INTI, this land belonged to the former National Agrarian Institute (IAN).

On 12 July, acting on orders from the governor, the pantaneros, the regional police’s hard men, violently attacked 850 people who had moved there quite legally, pushing them back to Camunare Rojo with tear gas and gunfire: 20 people were wounded and eight hospitalised. “People are playing at anarchy in Yaracuy, and I won’t allow it,” said Lapi, while the president of the state’s legislative council, Victor Pérez, denounced the Camunare Rojo campesinos and their strategy of terror.

In the Santa Lucía section of the Santa Catalina estate (which “belonged” to the Central Matilde sugar consortium), 600 people received 540 hectares on 3 May 2003. They also got 170m bolivars ($106,300) and a Chinese tractor, and have already managed to sow 170 hectares.

“Armed men attacked us on 20 July; they burnt a truck and a car, beat two people up, and poured petrol over them,” says Zapata, one of the cooperative’s leaders. The expressions on the gaunt faces around him seem weary. A tribunal from nearby Barquisimeto has now set up a degree of protection through National Guard patrols. But “we can still see the pantaneros from Lapi posted over there,” claims Zapata, pointing at old lodgings.” They shoot into the sky, they threaten us and try to provoke us into responding, to justify more violent repression.”

It’s one thing when the enemy is an opposition governor – as in the states of Yaracuy, Apure and Carabobo – or a politician from the ancien régime. But in January 2002, in El Robal (Cojedes State), it was Jhonny Yanez Rangel who let the dogs out. He had been elected as a member of the Movement for the Fifth Republic (MVR, the presi dent’s party). “He kicked out the campesinos and destroyed their ranchos and their equipment. Everything was lost,” says Vásquez, still enraged at what happened. How could a revolutionary governor act against the revolution? He might be one of the opportunists who joined the Chávez camp when his election victory began to look inevitable. On 12 April 2002 Yanez Rangel rallied to the anti-Chávez government without fuss, shamelessly switching back two days later when Chávez regained power (8).

The situation in Cojedes state is made worse by the initial total ineffectiveness of the regional INTI. “There were sinister forces getting in the way – the landowners and economic powers -everything was delayed,” recalls José Pimentel, who is responsible for recruiting for the buses whenever there is a trip to Caracas to support the president. “At our request Adán Chávez [the president’s brother, head of the INTI at the time] ran an audit and realised that the local leaders had achieved nothing in nine months.” Gustavo Guttierez was appointed leader of a replacement team in July 2003, and is working seven days a week to correct the mistakes and reform the institution.

To be fair to the INTI, the organisation was created from scratch very quickly after it took over from the ineffective and corrupt IAN. “These were newly-appointed officials,” explains current chairman Ricaurte Leonel. “They had to get to grips with the new law and how to apply it.” In a country where archives and land registers are often incomplete, and pseudo-landlords attempt to block access, the early days were uneasy.

In September 2002, when Chávez found out that the new body had not even redistributed 1,000 hectares, said Leonel, “he flipped, and said ‘I want 1.5m hectares redistributed by 30 August 2003, or you’re all fired, from the chairman [then his brother Adán] to the lowest-ranking official’.” Since then, redistribution has progressed quickly. By August 2003, 1,340,000 hectares had been handed over to 62,800 families. The objective remains 2m hectares per 500,000 campesinos (9).

There are still a few blackspots, though, especially in Apure state, a dangerous region along the Colombian border. “We’re suffering here, compañero,” laments a campesino. The agrarian revolution hasn’t reached us.” The figures speak for themselves: Flora Companía Anónima (property of the British crown, as in Cojedes) holds 350,000 hectares, Hato La Victoria, 100,000, Hato El Cedral, 150,000, La Caña Vilena, 30,000, and Matebanco, 25,000.

In these plains (10) vast expanses of abundant tall grass are drained by rivers that snake in meanders under forest canopies, and in the monotony of the flood plains, the campesino movement has always been harshly repressed, and accused of providing guerrilleros.

One period stands out in memories: TO-1, the first Theatre of Operations, under General Enrique Medina Gómez. This section of the Venezuelan army was supposedly aimed at countering infiltration by Colombian gangs. On 23 January 1997 Medina Gómez freed seven Colombian paramilitaries who had been held, with their weapons, since 22 December. These men were receiving some 2-3m bolivars from the cattle-raisers along the border in exchange for security. The general’s explanation was that they were carrying out an intelligence mission and had legitimate authoris ation from TO-1.

Later distanced from Chávez and (imprudently) appointed military attaché at the Venezuelan embassy in Washington, Medina Gómez was a key player in the 11 April 2002 coup. In 1998 repre sentatives from the town of Guasdualito had accused members of the intelligence service Disip (Dirección de Servicios de Inteligencia y Prevención) of collaborating with the paramilitaries operating along the border.

In Guasdualito today Santo Durán, technical director of the local INTI branch, indicates his office’s 1970s furniture, and the one computer he shares with two other people. Folders and files are piled up in front of him as he complains about the lack of resources. “We’re only just scraping through,” he admits. This situation is common. INTI delegations everywhere appear to be ill-equipped. But when asked about this, Durán tries to be reassuring. Despite disagreements and the resistance of certain big landowners, he says things have generally been sorted out amicably.

Warnings are coming from those with most to gain, the campesinos. “There are 70 occupations here that INTI has done nothing for. Not one carta agraria (the document that allows campesinos to occupy the land) has yet been issued in Alto Apure,” (11) says Domingo Santana of the Simón Bolivar Revolutionary Front. Anger is breaking out in the poor ranchos in a 200-metre wide strip alongside the muddy waters of the Apure.

“We can’t go any further back,” explains a woman, fending off insects that buzz around her plate. “It’s private property.” In this stormy landscape, where mud can get waist-deep, local INTI bureaucrats face a hurricane. “Those guys are not committed to the revolutionary process and are just exploiting the land law to get their hands on a good salary,” says Santana. Noting that Durán used to be the administrator of a property, Hato La Miel, they aim to take over, the campesinos are making serious plans to take the INTI establishments by force. But they welcome Caracas’s appointment of Ricaurte Leonel (“a good friend from whom we expect great things”) as head of the institution. He has always been attached to the campesino movement, and knows Alto Apure well.

The Bolivarian Revolution aims to be, and is, democratic. It has never carried out executions or witch-hunts. This is its great strength, and also its weakness. On 6 February 2003 Chávez visited the Jacoa cooperative’s land in Barinas, an estate long neglected by its two owners. A magnificent new road had been built to open up the area. As well as the cartas agrarias, the 500 occupants received three tractors and 690m bolivars ($430,000) in credits. Seven months later the project, intended as a showcase for Chávez’s policies, was a partial failure.

“Our comandante thinks everything’s working great! They hide the real figures from him; no one tells him the truth. There haven’t been 500 hectares opened up for farming here, only 15.” The Ministry of Infrastructure (Minfra) should have deforested 400 hectares by now. It hasn’t. Despite repeated demands, officials from the Rural Development Institute, responsible for drainage and irrigation, haven’t appeared. Those from the environ ment ministry have been conspicuously absent too. “The state institutions won’t see me,” complains Richard Vivas, a leader of the cooper ative, “only the INTI supports me”.

Gladys, who works for the INTI in Caracas, confirms these problems. The government aims to hand out not only land, but also machinery and credits. It wants the population to have access to an infrastructure of housing, schools and health centres. To achieve this, the INTI has to work with the relevant ministries and councils – highly bureaucratic structures, many of whose staff are members of the old political parties and have been festering there for as much as 15-20 years. “They do everything they can to scupper this kind of development,” she says. “Like the ministers, we have to work conspiratorially, by infiltrating these establishments and seeking out allies. So the results are often slow.” It is a huge waste of time and energy.

For the first time, from inside their barro (12) dwellings – worlds of leather saddles, blades, bags, storm lamps, skins, boots and piles of clothes – the campesinos are emerging organised and aware of the law. They read it. They know they have rights. They react to the delays and difficulties in a highly politicised manner. “Don’t succumb to provocation” is the advice heard at a meeting on Hato El Miedo, Barinas. “We must fight with our heads. Our weapon is the law.”

On the Jacoa domain there are preparations to give the slovenly institutions a shock. One of the leaders outlines the strategy: “We’ll have to enter by force. But, listen carefully, with a banner saying: ‘We are revolutionaries, we are with the president; the problem is with this particular official’.” Otherwise, the press will get hold of it and use it for the opposition’s benefit.”

The opposition is always poised for attack. On 20 November 2002, thanks to its control of the Supreme Court of Justice, it successfully annulled articles 89 and 90 of the Land Law. Article 89 permitted the INTI to allow pre-emptive occupation of land during the court proceedings aimed at proving the supposed landlords’ illegitimacy. Estates can now only be occupied after adjudi cation by a slow, opaque legal system that is often in collusion with the opposition. Article 90, meanwhile, ruled out indemnity payments to “landlords” who had built works, houses or buildings on illegally occupied state land. “Imagine,” says an indignant Ricaurte Leonel in his office overlooking the Parque Central in Caracas, “someone steals my car. The thief replaces the tyres and the engine, and then when I claim my car back, I’m expected to reimburse him for the tyres and the engine.”

Until the National Assembly rewrites the articles in question, presidential decree 2292, of 4 February 2003, combined with INTI resolution 177, has created the cartas agrarias. Without constituting property deeds, these allow for the occupation of disputed land and the granting of credits for its exploitation.

However, resistance to this rural revolution has also manifested itself in more violent ways. The regional INTI co-ordinator, Richard Vivas, leaving Guanare (capital of Portuguesa state) at the wheel of his dark-windowed car for Zoropo, received a phone call, telling him of a problem between a group of campesinos and three campo volantes (guards) (13). On the scene, amid woodland and bush, the atmosphere was confused and charged. “They won’t let us pass,” protested a woman, pointing at the three men with their guns tightly gripped. “They threaten us, they burn our ranchos, they destroy our harvests,” adds her companion, enraged. Vivas calms his people down. Before the campo volantes’ worried eyes, he gets out his mobile phone: “I”m going to ask Disip to search and identify these people.” Arriving back in Guanare he admits: “I’ve received a lot of death threats. I take them seriously. This opposition kills.”

Twelve people have been murdered in Portuguesa state, including Jacinto Mendoza, executed in front of the INTI offices. He was helping organise a land committee demanding property deeds for 50 families to occupy fallow land belonging to the state. When the intermediary who recruited the sicarios (contract killers) was arrested, he said he had received 8m bolivars ($5,000) from Omar Contreras Barboza, ex-minister of agriculture under Carlos Andrés Pérez, the former president who was ousted on corruption charges. Barboza claims to own the land. There has so far been no reaction from the judiciary.

There are extermination groups, organised gangs in the landowners’ pay, especially in the states of Zulia, Barinas, Táchira and Apure. And there are media troublemakers. On 24 March, in a report published by the daily El Universal, Roberto Giusti accused Jorge Nieves, a campesino and community leader, of being one of the Apure region comandantes of a supposed Bolivarian Liberation Front (FBL), said to be the armed wing of the Bolivarian Revolution, and in league with the Colombian guerrillas (14). A month later, in a region teeming with Colombian paramilitaries, he was shot down in the centre of Guasdualito.

Fedenaga claims that the armed forces assist invasions of productive land, and that the cartas agrarias are handed out to guerrilla groups. The opposition accuses Chávez of dictatorship. In reality, the victims come from among the supporters of a democratically-elected president: in this conflict forgotten by the media, 74 campesinos have been killed in two years, and more than 120 since 1999.

Despite these crimes, despite the blood shed under these enormous skies, the enthusiasm and unwavering support for “our comandante, President Hugo Chávez” is incredible. Everywhere, your hear the greeting “Epa chámo, como está la lucha?” (Hi, friend, how’s the struggle?) . Everywhere, people are talking about maize, sorghum, vegetables, fruits, cattle, fish-farming and land cultivation, new schools and new houses.

Of course, no one has forgotten that the first thing the short-lived dictatorship of 11 April 2002 did was to annul the Land Law. People are following closely the political crisis in Caracas, where the opposition is trying every means to oust Chávez from power before he can carry out his reforms.

By allusion or even openly, people are warning, just in case. “If they take all this away from us, there will be civil war.”

(1) On 10 December 1859, during the federal war, General Ezequiel Zamora led the peasant army that broke the anti-Bolivarian oligarchy in Venezuela.

(2) Peasants, the rural poor.

(3) 3,000 bolivars = $1.88.

(4) According to the last agricultural census (1998), 70% of good quality arable land is owned by the 20% of landlords who have more than 500 hectares, while 75% have only 6% of the land. Some 60% of rural farmers do not have the deeds to the property they occupy.

(5) Chávez refers to his reforms as the Bolivarian Revolution, after Simón Bolivar, who led Venezuela’s independence movement in the 19th century. Under the new constitution the Chávez government drew up, Venezuela’s full name is now the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.

(6) “Frente a la ley de tierras”, Ultima Hora, Centro de Estudios Ganaderos, Maracay, 15 December 2001.

(7) See “Venezuela: a coup countered“, Le Monde diplomatique, English language edition, May 2002.

(8) After a presidential intervention, Yanez Rangel had to pay 55m bolivars ($34,600) in compensation to the campesinos he had expelled.

(9) Such haste has led to some errors, regarding both rightful landowners and protected areas, such as those under the jurisdiction of the environment ministry.

(10) The plains make up a large proportion of Venezuela’s area (and that of neighbouring Colombia).

(11) El Nacional, Caracas (http://impresodigital. el-nacional….).

(12) A mud mixture laid on a wooden trellis.

(13) Traditional rural figures originally employed to watch over the herds, the campos volantes have become armed vigilantes in the pay of the terratenientes.

(14) Roberto Giusti, “El brazo armado de la revolución“, El Universal, Caracas, 24 March 2003.

Translated by Gulliver Cragg

Originally published in Le Monde Diplomatique, October 2003